During the course of 2017, I had the pleasure of seeing and reviewing more than 50 theatrical productions throughout Austin for Austin360. As a participant in the Austin Critics Table Awards, I’m able to award deserving artists with the recognition they’ve earned for producing the best work of the previous year. However, these awards are necessarily the work of a committee, and by design they iron out the idiosyncrasies of each critic.
This list doesn’t do that. It’s a rundown of my 10 favorite shows that I’ve seen this past year. These aren’t the 10 “best” shows of 2017 but rather the 10 shows that I found the most engaging, remarkable, provocative or just plain fun.
I’ve only included local productions, not the national tours of Broadway productions (or else the tour of “Fun Home” that played at the Long Center would rate at the top of my list).
10. “Henry IV”
Here’s a confession that could get my undergraduate degree in theater revoked — I’m not wild about seeing Shakespeare. I certainly recognize the power of his poetry, the rich characters he created and his influence on both theater and the written word in the English-speaking world. But I find that many modern productions simply rely on audiences’ assumption that Shakespeare is “high art” and create staggeringly boring nights of theater. The Hidden Room’s “Henry IV” was a big exception. By imbuing the text with a bit of punk-rock flair (including live musical accompaniment), director Beth Burns actually made the story and characters accessible to a modern audience, thanks in large part to the strong performance of Robert Matney as a charmingly shady Falstaff.
The biggest weakness in Austin theater is the lack of high-profile opportunities given to artists of color. Even when productions arise based around the perspectives of those artists, we in the critical community may miss them because they lack the public relations outreach of more established theater companies. The Vortex works hard to counter this with a staggering number of shows each year that showcase artistic perspectives from a variety of different communities. “Scheherazade” was one such production, created by the Generic Ensemble Company under the direction of kt shorb. The play tells the story of a young Arab-American woman’s experience facing prejudice and systemic oppression, as embodied by an overeager, racist Department of Homeland Security agent. This was raw political theater, clearly built from the pain and trauma of the creators, that told a powerful story to which more Americans need to listen.
Speaking of powerful stories on the Vortex stage, Lisa B. Thompson’s new play “Underground,” directed by champion of artistic diversity Rudy Ramirez, was another highlight of the past year. Through a conversation between old friends Mason Dixon, a successful lawyer, and Kyle Brown, the leader of a radical, borderline terrorist activist organization, Thompson explored issues that cut to the heart of what it means to be black in America. The topics ranged from assimilation, reparations and the civil rights movement all the way through to Black Lives Matter and the Trump presidency. At the heart of this discussion were two richly drawn characters, given dynamic life by actors Jeffery Da’Shade Johnson and Marc Pouhé.
7. “Building the Wall”
It’s impossible to ignore the political climate’s influence on Austin theater (and indeed all of popular and artistic culture) in 2017. A variety of different productions, whether intentionally or incidentally, have dealt with the grief, anger and fear that many in Austin’s artistic community have been experiencing since the election of Donald Trump. The production that most directly dealt with this was “Building the Wall,” by Robert Schenkkan, given its regional premiere in Austin thanks to the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Theatre and Dance. Like “Underground,” the entire play is a conversation between two characters, Gloria and Rick (played by Franchelle Stewart Dorn and David Sitler), as they review how Rick went from a reluctant Trump supporter to a participant in outright genocide. “Building the Wall” was ultimately not about Trump but about what it means to follow authoritarians and forsake common humanity. It’s a chilling warning, and the sympathy with which Sitler portrays Rick made him perhaps the most terrifying villain in any show this year.
There’s something delightful about a classic play presented in a straightforward manner, and that’s exactly what “Betrayal” was. The Harold Pinter work, famous for its presentation of scenes in backward order (as parodied in the final season of “Seinfeld”), is full of barely repressed lust and rage, as well as heartbreaking secrets. This was the first production of a new theater company, Filigree Theatre, and director Elizabeth V. Newman and producer Stephanie Moore found the perfect cast with which to launch their work. David Moxham, Emily Rankin and J. Kevin Smith simmered with sensuality, stolen glances and mysteries kept even from the audience. At the end of the show, I was left with the feeling of provocative textual undercurrents and hidden possibilities that can be found in the best productions of Pinter, which makes me eager to see what Filigree Theatre does next.
5. “The Effect”
I have two major soft spots in my theatrical tastes — dark comedies (bordering on “dramedies”) and musicals. So perhaps it’s no surprise that the top five spots on my list are taken up by shows that fall into one of those two categories. “The Effect,” by Lucy Prebble, was a dark comedy presented by Capital T Theatre about a scientific study testing a new antidepressant drug that calls into question the very nature of love, attraction and emotions in general. Under the direction of Lily Wolff, the talented cast (especially the young leads Sarah Danko and Delanté Keys) showcased a fierce, believable intimacy of a kind I haven’t seen since last year’s “Lungs,” not coincidentally also directed by Wolff.
4. “A Chorus Line”
“A Chorus Line” is the ultimate Broadway geek’s show — a musical about what it takes to be cast in a musical. Rather than follow the stars of the show, though, “A Chorus Line” shows us the audition process for several background dancers, and we watch as their individuality is showcased only to be brutally erased in order for them to actually get the job. Going into Texas State University Department of Theatre and Dance’s production, I was not a big fan of this musical, but I left feeling completely differently. The student cast, coached by director/choreographer Cassie Abate and musical director Greg Bolin, gave such nuanced performances that I finally understood the tragic nature of the story. I can think of no higher praise than to admit that this show and its remarkable cast finally made me fully appreciate a musical theater classic.
3. “Dry Land”
Though Austin theater may be somewhat lackluster when it comes to showcasing the work of artists of color, one of its strongest points in 2017 was the amount of great works by female playwrights with powerful roles for Austin’s many strong actresses. One of these was “Dry Land” by Ruby Rae Spiegel, produced by another new theater company, Permanent Record, and directed by the talented, up-and-coming Marian Kansas. “Dry Land” tells the story of Amy and Ester, two members of the same high school swim team whose friendship revolves in part around Amy’s unwanted pregnancy. Lindsey Markham and Brandi Gist, as the two girls, shared a remarkable chemistry that made me feel truly invested in their relationship, which made the intensity of the play’s climax all the more riveting, disturbing and moving. I’ll definitely be on the lookout for future work from both actresses, from Kansas and from Permanent Record.
2. “In the Heights”
I find the big musicals produced by Zach Theatre can be somewhat hit-or-miss with me. Though they were fun, high-energy and big crowd-pleasers, both “Million Dollar Quartet” and “Singin’ in the Rain” left me cold. “In the Heights,” on the other hand, was probably the best local production of a musical that I’ve seen in Austin. With music and lyrics by “Hamilton” creator and current superstar Lin-Manuel Miranda, and a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, “In the Heights” follows a group of ethnically diverse characters living in Manhattan’s Washington Heights during a summer heat wave and blackout. Director/choreographer Michael Balderrama created a movement score that helped express each individual through their dancing and general physicality, highlighting what dancing in musical theater is really all about. The talented cast’s high-energy performances created a vibrant, entertaining show while delivering an important message about community, diversity and the shifting meanings of the modern cityscape.
1. “The Wolves”
Even for the well-established Hyde Park Theatre, “The Wolves” was quite an impressive undertaking. Featuring an entire high-school-age youth league soccer team of young women (named the Wolves), Sarah DeLappe’s play is a close look at female adolescence in contemporary America. Each girl’s voice adds up to a greater whole, a sort of narrative fugue that built into a howl of pain. Most importantly, DeLappe gives a realistic portrayal of teenage girls that highlights the issues that confront them every day — friendships, the maturation of their bodies, schoolwork, growing sexuality, and even the death of a friend — without resorting to narrative clichés. Director Ken Webster and assistant director Rosalind Faires built an amazing ensemble out of the nine young women at the heart of “The Wolves,” crafting a narrative of empowerment for girls that also speaks to the nervous adolescent within all of us.